SBC Life Articles

The Book-Banning Racket

A great struggle is underway in our nation. It is a struggle of ideas, values, and morals, — the most basic questions of right and wrong. It is not a matter of slight difference in opinion. Indeed, many describe our national cultural debate in stark terms usually reserved for warfare. The most fundamental issues are at stake, and two competing and mutually exclusive views of the world are represented in the contest — for one of them to win, the other must lose. Because the conflict is about ideas, about truth, honesty is crucial. But, some in this struggle are not honest; they have set up the equivalent of their own Department of Disinformation and Propaganda.

Sound, even benevolent ideas are made to take on the appearance of a threatening, alien, specter. Time-proven standards of moral behavior or biblical belief are made to seem poisonous. Christians are appalled when they hear reports of unreasonable, uncivil, incoherent demands made by other Christians; those of the fanatic fringe, the "religious right radicals." They wonder, "How do we account for their behavior?" Often, the reason is as simple as sheer, intentional, unashamed, misrepresentation! What was reported, just didn't happen!

When you combine "experts" who manipulate the press, and journalists who permit it, you can quickly pollute the thought stream. When a scoundrel puts a toxic effluent into a stream, he affects everything downstream. The intentional discharge of falsehood in the information streams of our national life, unless it is detected and removed by diligent and honest journalists, soon spreads into the consciousness of an entire people, becoming an unquestioned part of the mythology of the time. And that is being done, deliberately and maliciously, in this battle for the minds and souls of our people.

A remarkable and disturbing admission was made by Marc Herman, in an article titled, "Giving the People What They Want," in Salon, an on-line magazine, and noted in the October, 1996, edition of Harper's magazine. Herman lives in Washington, D.C., and for a time worked for a liberal activist organization which makes it its business to attack what it generally, and loosely, calls the religious right.

Here are Herman's remarks:

"Every day in Washington some public-interest group produces another dauntingly lengthy report and releases it to the media. For a journalist on a tight deadline who finds the study's conclusions credible, it is extremely tempting to skim the document, paraphrase the first and last pages, and file a story about the findings. For two years, I worked for a liberal political organization that understood this temptation and used it to pass off as research a document that was essentially promotional. Reporters lapped it up.

"The group I worked for, People for the American Way (PFAW), is a 300,000-member civil-liberties organization based in Washington, D.C. My job was to research book banning in the public schools and, particularly, to investigate evidence of censorship promulgated by the religious right. I helped write an annual report called 'Attacks on the Freedom to Learn,' whose appearance each September invariably prompts hundreds of national and local stories about which books have been banned and where. The headlines attract the attention of grant foundations and bring PFAW donations from supporters of such groups as the ACLU and the National Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Committee.

"'Attacks' is an alarming report, mainly because every year it says that censorship is getting worse. The problem is, the numbers that support this startling conclusion are cooked.
"Here's how it works: First, you assume that reporters want to avoid legwork and that if you present a compelling story, it will get printed. Then you spend a year producing a document long enough to seem exhaustively researched, understanding that reporters will assume that the research conforms to rigorous standards, which of course it doesn't.

"The unjustified removal of books from classrooms does happen. But, in general, textbook censorship — from what I saw in my two years of studying it — is a bit like littering: it happens, and it shouldn't, but the problem hasn't really changed much for quite some time." "It's always been there. It's not that it's getting worse, but it's taking different forms," said Dalia Kandiyoti of the National Coalition Against Censorship, prior to the release of PFAW's 1995 report. "I don't think anyone can say that there's been more textbook censorship."

"The 'Attacks' report omits this bit of truth in the interest of publicity, because a simple, worsening trend gets ink while a complex, consistent issue isn't such a sure bet. For example, PFAW's 'most challenged book in America' (which is often Of Mice and Men but changes every year) usually has elicited fewer than ten complaints among the country's roughly 80,000 public schools. (PFAW purposely avoids giving any raw numbers to contextualize its list of banned books, the organization's head of communications once explained to me.) Of those ten complaints, most never go beyond a gripe directed to a school librarian. Most complaints (a consistent 60 percent, by PFAW's tally) result in either very limited or no restriction at all of the book in question. Of the remaining incidents, many involve the reassignment of books from lower libraries to upper libraries for arguably sound reasons of age appropriateness. The press doesn't catch this because it doesn't look very hard at research that seems suitably alarming at first glance.

"Only once in my memory did a reporter ask whether the report's spiraling year-to-year statistical picture indicated a worsening problem or only better research. We just lied to him until he went away. We told him that our research methods had been consistent since the mid-eighties, and that in no way were we casting a broader net or looking under new rocks.

"This was simply false. In 1993, for example, our censorship figures were not on pace to surpass the previous year's total, and I recall telling a superior the good news that book banning appeared to be easing up. He told me that he believed I could make things look worse — that we needed it to look worse. So I did. I began to joke to friends about being the person single-handedly responsible for most of the censorship in the United States. Interestingly enough, one of the biggest single-year jumps in censorship recorded in the report's twelve-year history occurred the year we installed a new database for the project.

"I can't blame the lied-to-reporter for his ignorance of our ploys, but he could have answered his own question. Most of 'Attacks' is an incident-by-incident breakdown of censorship attempts. Had he read the report, he would have realized that most of the incidents were extremely minor, hardly book burnings, and pressed us a bit more.

"It's no news that people in Washington lie. PFAW's report is certainly not the only example of a problem being kept 'alive' for the sake of an organization's press profile, but it's also true that some nonprofit organizations and lobbies in Washington do remarkably evenhanded research. It's too bad reporters don't bother to figure out the difference."

There you have it! Rare candor, and of extreme importance. The questions raised about the honesty and objectivity of People for the American Way, and its companions, are answered by Herman's confessions. They ought to be pondered by everyone who cares what our nation is becoming. They explain the malignant mechanism employed by the unscrupulous, and serve as a wake-up call for the Christian. An entire industry has been built around decrying and demonizing, by the most blatant misrepresentation, what ordinary Christian people think and believe. To those who oppose them, traditional ideas about morality, ethics, family life, and a host of other questions, are judged to be too dangerous to permit our people to be exposed to them. Biblical notions about responsibility, truthfulness, decency, and virtue must be stopped, even if lies must be deployed in the stopping.

Christians must play by the rules. The Lord commands, "Thou shalt not bear false witness," and we must not. We must also be frank in exposing those who do. It is also crucial to exercise discernment about charges laid against fellow-believers and co-combatants in what is currently styled the Culture Wars.



What Is The Religious Right? What Do They Believe?

Thanks to a new Gallup International Institute survey done for the American Jewish Committee there is reliable data on the social and political views of the "religious right." Media reporting on the movement has been less than scientific over the years, with the group's size estimated at 5 percent to 40 percent of the population. In response to the direct question, "Do you consider yourself a supporter of the religious right movement?", some 22 percent of those interviewed answered "yes." By what may be a more precise measure taken from questions on political ideology and evangelical beliefs, about 14 percent of Americans consider themselves part of the religious right.

What unites this group most is the conviction that "values matter most." They believe that by making the Christian outlook more central to government, America's political troubles can be alleviated. They believe they should "get involved in politics to protect their values." They tend to believe that there is "one correct Christian point of view" on most political issues.

Members of the religious right were found to be more tolerant of racial and ethnic minorities, Catholics, and Jews. They were, however, much more negative than the general population toward atheists, homosexuals, feminists, and Muslims. Some 79 percent believe that homosexual rights groups have too much influence, compared with 46 percent of other Americans, and 64 percent believe the same about atheists compared to only one-third of others who held that view.

Attitudes of members of the religious right toward Jews is a mixed bag. They tend to be more supportive of Israel and the Jews' special status as God's chosen people than other Americans (61 percent versus 52 percent). While an overwhelming majority of the religious right said they'd vote for a Jewish presidential candidate (80 percent) and were willing to have Jews as neighbors (96 percent), more than half believe that Jews need to be converted to Christ.

From Current Thoughts & Trends, November 1996.

    About the Author

  • Bill Merrell